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A Mother’s Love: ‘I’m So Happy My Son Came Out As Gay’

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“I realised I loved him. I always loved him. And I told him that I didn’t look at him for who he slept with, but I looked at him as my son.”

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A Mother’s Love: ‘I’m So Happy My Son Came Out As Gay’
Photo: Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash
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Stigma has never been far from Rosemary Kasiva. In her case, you could call it quadruple stigma. She was brought up by a single mother in the sixties, brought up her own children as a single parent, watched her sister die of an AIDS-related illness, and today is the mother to an openly gay son, Leonard aka Mutisya.

Our meeting takes place in her son’s flat in a Nairobi suburb.  The rainbow flag hangs limply in a corner. This was not the first time we had met.  She had insisted that we meet at least once so that she could get to know me, and what I was after. She had good reason to mistrust the media in our society. Back to Rosemary. I was struck by how youthful she looks. Her spectacles sat squarely on her cappuccino coloured face. She wore a strong and somewhat serious face. She asked to make myself at home, and prepare whatever beverage I fancy. She’s been wanting to share her journey of being a parent of being an openly gay son. Especially following the recent ruling on the petition to decriminalize homosexual sex. She figured it was time to talk about her son, her first-born, the one she had when she was only 19.

Kasiva could possibly have been the only parent present at the High Court during the Repeal 162 case. I remember seeing her during the submissions and she was also among the throes of individuals who were present during the May 24th ruling.  She wasn’t there for Leonard alone, she wasn’t there for the queer community alone either; she too had a stake in the judgement.

“I’m glad Leonard and I can talk openly about gay relationships, marriages and having children within the gay setting,” says Kasiva. “We share posts on everything and I sometimes question why I was so mad when he came out. This has been the best thing that has happened to both of us.  There are no secrets we now relate honestly and openly.”

I know many other queer individuals who would love to hear their own parents utter those words. I know I would. There is acceptance, respect, and love in this home. Kasiva does not hide the deep love she has for Leonard and his siblings. But she is very protective of her children. Trust does not come easy to her. She has been hurt once to many times.

First, her sister. She tells me she wishes that when she had the same resolve to fight for her sister who died of an HIV-related illness the same way she now defends Leonard and his brothers.

“We faced stigma at the hospitals that I took my sister to. We were afraid then. When she died, who stood with us? No one,” she says. “I [wish I] would have made sure she would have gotten the best treatment and maybe she would have still been here. There was a lot of stigma and fear surrounding us. Now I am not willing to sacrifice any member of my family at the expense of the world.”

See where she is coming from?

We have the flat to ourselves, as both mother and son didn’t want to impede each other during the interview. Kasiva has her cup of chai, I’ve got my kahawa and for then, she gives me the precious gift of time. Time to re-open memories and remember her journey and subsequently, transformation.

Kasiva describes herself as a Nairobi hustler through and through.  This city is her home. She was born in Pumwani Hospital, raised at the BAT Village in Bahati, in the Eastlands area and spent most of her adult life in Dagoretti, until recently when she migrated to Athi River. But she still commutes daily into the city for business and for church on Sunday.  She had also made the trek into the city for this interview.

Kasiva beams with pride as she remembers how Leonard was a very smart child.  He excelled academically both in primary and secondary school and earned himself a scholarship to study in Singapore and then the United States.  She describes him as a gentle and obedient child. The ideal first born, though he suffered from a number of health challenges during his early childhood. She remembers he preferred playing with dolls more than cars or more ‘boys toys’. It was shocking at first but she opted to continue buying the toys that he preferred.  She didn’t think much of it.  It seemed like just a preference to her back then, something that didn’t warrant much fuss.

As she recalls Leonard’s formative years, there were little incidents here and there that hinted he was different, but she was dismissive of them. Like the time he had a close friend in primary school and during their Standard 8 exams, she came across success cards from this particular boy to Leonard. They had love hearts and affectionate messages. Leonard told her they were just friends.

However, it was not until many years later when Leonard was studying abroad did the matters of his orientation resurface. He had come back home for holiday from Singapore with a male friend and they went to the Maasai Mara together. While they were away, Leonard’s church friends came home to inquire on his whereabouts. When she told them that his away with a male friend, their reaction surprised her. She suspects that they knew Leonard was gay but she herself thought nothing of their interest in her son and his travel companion.  To her, Leonard had just brought a friend who wanted to experience his friend’s home country.

It was not until 2010 when Leonard came home unexpectedly from the US, where he was studying at the time, that things did begin to unravel proper. His university had been in touch with her a few times before asking her to intervene as Leonard seemed to be struggling academically. Leonard was halfway through his studies at this time, but he didn’t seem committal about his return to America.  There was always an excuse for the delay, until after he came out clean. She remembers him saying he was considering celibacy and informing his mother that he didn’t like girls, not in ‘that’ way.

“I hope you don’t like boys?” she remembers asking.   His response to her was, “Unfortunately I do.”  As she recalls this conversation, she falls back into the sofa. She remembers that the revelation was painful.  She tells me that she fired her son with a barrage of questions and even threatened to beat him. She verbally abused him, berated him and expressed her disappointment.  Some of the answers to her inquisition were greeted with silence, and some revealed the bitter truth.  One such truth was that some of the individuals with whom Leonard had gay encounters were also within the church. Her church. Their church. The church where Leonard and his brothers served in ministry. The family church. The sense of betrayal from within and outside her home was immense. Did everyone but her know of her son’s sexuality, she asked herself.  Had people within the church managed to ‘recruit’ her son, she wondered.

They say hindsight is 20/20, and as Rosemary reflects on that moment, she tells me she regrets her reaction and wishes she’d have acted better.  She describes the family as close-knit and expresses disappointment that she had not created an environment for Leonard to come clean about his sexuality earlier.

It was also around this time, she says, that Leonard got involved in activism. This added fuel to her fire. She hated the gay community for having ‘recruited’ her son and also from detracting him from his studies in the US. She recalls how Leonard’s coming out may have affected his brothers, as she hints their grades slipped around this time due to the tension that had come out in the home. Pun intended.
An ultimatum was issued. She categorically told Leonard that he could only live in her house if she renounced his homosexuality.  Then one day, he stepped out and never came back home. It was a harrowing six months that followed. There was no contact, nor knowledge of his whereabouts. Phone calls and text messages went unanswered. Some of these texts demanded that he came back home or else she was going to set the police on him. Leonard remained mteja all through this period.

“I lost so much weight during this time. Eventually, through my own networks and the rumour mill, I found out that Leonard was in Kisumu. I was on a matatu almost immediately once I got this news.” I’m astounded at the clarity at which she remembers things. She remembers it was a Prestige Shuttle that she travelled on. The two samosas and tea that she had for breakfast and the five hours she spent walking around Kisumu.  She believed that Leonard was living as a street person and she was somehow convinced was going to meet someone, anyone, who would know him. Maybe he now went by the name of Mutisya. I must mention she had never been to Kisumu before and had presumed that is was the size of Machakos (it is much bigger). Her words, not mine.

She admits there was a mixture of naivety, bravery, and desperation during this expedition. The fact that Leonard was AWOL was a secret that was known only to her and her other two sons. Not even her mother – Leonard’s grandmother – knew. She wanted him back and still hoped he would resume his studies.

Kasiva was relentless in trying to contact Leonard. She kept on sending him messages. She endured numerous sleepless nights. She’d rack her brain, wondering what her son was doing in Kisumu, whether he was homeless, and what he is eating. There is nothing like a mother’s love.

“Mutisya’s grandmother used to ask about him and when he was going back to the US. The bishop of my church would ask the same. I couldn’t tell them that I didn’t know where he was. I had to lie to them. I kept on telling them he is taking a break so that he could work on a project.”

“There was a rumour already doing the rounds in the church that Leonard had been chased away from America because he was gay.  I also started being blamed for making him gay. People were saying that it was my male friends who had abused Leonard, which is why he had turned out gay. There was so much hate!”

The wagging tongues and lack of support from her church led Kasiva to walk away from a place that she believed was a sanctuary. It didn’t end there. On the home front, Leonard’s siblings started questioning their mother on their elder brother’s whereabouts. “They started telling me, if I had not been angry with Leonard, he would not have run away.” Her voice now sounding pained.

The period of Leonard’s absence accorded her time to reflect and ask herself some hard questions.  Questions that made her think about his sexuality, her love for him, and whether she was going to live a life worrying about other people’s opinions. Despite not being in communication with her first born, she religiously kept on sending him money.  She was trying to reach out.

Kasiva looks at me squarely, tilts her head and with a seriousness in her eyes and tells me she prayed constantly for her son. Prayed for him to come back.  She got her miracle when Leonard called her one day and informed her he was working in Kisumu. A reunion and homecoming were delicately agreed on. By this time, she had to come to terms with two things – Leonard’s sexuality and his decision to drop out of university. Both were bitter pills to swallow for her because she had dreams for him once he graduated.  Kasiva also realised that Leonard’s coming out would also put her in the line of a lot of criticism and being ostracised.  However, she knew full well that she was not going to go through another six months or more of mental and emotional torture.

“I realised I loved him. I always loved him. And I told him that I didn’t look at him for who he slept with, but I looked at him as my son,” she recollects. She wanted her son(s) to be able to approach her with anything. In true Kasiva form, she laid down the questions again. She even asked Leonard whether he was dating. At the time he wasn’t, but she remembers him telling her that he’d let her know if there was anyone on the cards.

As I sat there listening to Kasiva, I remembered another friend who came out to both her parents and both were in full support of their daughter’s queer identity. There are many queer Kenyans who crave that kind of support from their parents or even friends.  Unfortunately, the Kasiva’s of this world are still few and far between. I marvelled at Kasiva’s 180-degree turn. Their relationship is warm, Leonard is now her right-hand-man, her go-to-guy and more importantly her friend.

In accepting Leonard, Kasiva wonders what she was really scared of. Was it because he chose to drop out of school or was it about his sexuality? Was it because of what people would have thought or had her worst fear been realised? Did she blame herself for the many ‘red flags’ that she ignored?

Kasiva and Leonard’s journey is a blend of the biblical prodigal son without the demand an inheritance (and with a mother instead of a father obviously), but a request for acceptance. It was like the runaway Jacob getting back to his father Isaac or Joseph reuniting with his father Jacob. In ‘finding’ her son, Kasiva opened herself to a whole new world of activism and a whole new community of friends.

However, this has not been an easy process for her. This has exposed her to the politics of the queer community, which at times left Leonard holding the short end of the stick because of his work in the activists’ space. In those initials days, she admits that her feelings towards the gay community swung like a pendulum.

I learnt at a conference a few years ago that when an African comes out as gay/queer, they come out with their whole family. With Leonard’s sexuality being an open book now, and with him being back home, the rejection squarely kicked in. Kasiva was ostracized by relatives, friends, neighbours, church members, fellow business people, the whole lot! She had not realised what she had signed up for by openly standing in support of her son. She also feared for her family’s security at the home in the Dagoretti area.

“Nobody wanted to identify with me. I would go to the market to buy vegetables or to the butchery to buy meat and the moment I would turn my back, people would start laughing.”  The pain stigma returned anew, this time, worse than those years ago with her sister.

In the years gone by, her relationship with Leonard has grown from strength to strength. “I am so happy that he came out as gay and decided to live as a gay man in Kenya. I’d be more worried if he came out as gay and he was away from me. I can see him happy, I can check on him and I have been able to see him transform.

“I’d like to encourage parents to embrace their children.  Talk to them about what they feel about their orientation; let’s be open to our children. Let us not put barriers to communication.”

Kasiva has severed relationships with individuals who seem spiteful towards her and her children. The accusations have been levelled at the whole family, insinuating that they are in the business of recruiting young people into homosexuality.

“I wish we could have honest discussions within our churches. My bishop has been supportive of me, even calling me during the absence to find out why I had kept away from the church,” she says. “The problem, I think, is with the congregants more, the ones who are trying to prove they are ‘holy’.”

The church still plays a pivotal role in Kasiva’s life. Her faith has become more personal. “We need to practise what we preach, we need to practise love, preach love and loving everyone and not judging anybody. We do not know until such a time when God comes who is living right and who is living wrong.”

Kasiva doesn’t trust easily. She has now kept a handful of friends and I understand why. She has been betrayed too many times. When things were really rough, the only people who stood by her were Leonard’s siblings.  She would break down before them often. Those were days she didn’t have the energy to face her fellow hustlers. It was too much.  I sense that she is still grappling to understand how individuals whom she called friends or relatives could burn her at the stake because she had a gay son.

“Let’s be honest. We are not all the same and let us not hate people who are different from us,” she says. “All families are not perfect, even those with a father and mother. There are families that can have also gay parents. Let us be willing to judge and accommodate the other person. Let’s try and understand that we are not all equal.”

Kasiva knows that she is not the only gay parent in the village. She and another fellow mother occasionally check on one another. However, she knows that there is more than she can offer. She would love to start a support group to help parents understand and come to terms with their children’s sexuality or identity.

She urges parents to be more open-minded and to recognise that there are many forms of love that exist out there.  Unconditional support and love are the bedrock of the family, according to Kasiva.  Love, love, love is what she is calling for now.

As we concluded the interview, she tells me that she is surprised that she didn’t cry. She expected to be very emotional. It had been an intense one and a half hour interview. I left feeling envy for Leonard and his siblings, respect and admiration for Kasiva. I didn’t know how to respond to her statement on the crying then. It was only later that I found the words, where I wanted to tell her she had done her tears, and now it was time to enjoy the rainbows.

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Kevin Mwachiro is a Kilifi based writer, journalist, podcaster and human rights defender. Twitter @kevmwachiro

Reflections

I Shall Plead for Breath No More

Enough is enough I shall bow down no more.

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I Shall Plead for Breath No More
Photo: George Floyd
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I can’t breath

In this system of breathlessness

Which deprives me of air

Dignity and humanity.

That scorches me in the fire of hell on earth

Of their ghettos and gallows

Which alternate as my home year in year out

For decades and centuries

Since they robbed me from my land

Packing me like sardine

In boxes called boats.

My anscestors died of breathlessness on high seas

I die of breathlessness on highways

Under the knee of white brute

Pretending to police the route

To heavenly palaces

Of his kith and kin.

Who enslaved me in their homes and plantations

Ensnared me in their factories and industries

Breathing smoke and carbon from its chimneys

Blackening my lungs

Thickening my arteries

Leaving me vulnerable to be killed in tens and thousands

From coronas and sars of this world.

Enough is enough

I shall bow down no more

I shall worship at the altar of white god no more

I shall be cheated by dollar bills no more

I shall kneel down in churches no more.

I shall plead for breath no more

And there shall be fire next time no more

Fire is now and here

To stay for ever

Till I can breath again

Breath again and again

Without shiver or fear.

Issa Bin Mariam (Issa Shivji)
Dar es salaam
31/05/2020

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Reflections

A Tale of Two Lockdowns, 33 Years Apart

The lockdown in Entebbe brings back memories of another lockdown in a boarding school in Teso, where, in the midst of a raging war and looming starvation, a young boy lost his childhood and learned the true meaning of loneliness and abandonment.

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A Tale of Two Lockdowns, 33 Years Apart
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I did not return to the scene until 15 years had passed, by which time I was already more than twice as old as I had been when the events of 1987 abruptly ended my childhood.

In early February 2002, I was in the press pack that accompanied the inaugural East African Legislative Assembly on the inspection of the Soroti Flying School, once the property of the East African Community. I found time and nipped off to St Andrews Madera Boys School, where I had studied from 1985 to 1987.

Even then, in my mid-20s, the paradox was unavoidable: Had I truly left St Andrews the day that the Red Cross evacuated scores of us school children trapped behind the front lines in Soroti?

Can a psychology shaped by the tragic knowledge of impermanence and strife learn to trust and easily move on? How could I say I had put the months of 1987 behind me when the first thing I did upon return to the school was to make way straight for the Stretcher House dormitory?

Standing there with my face pressed against the window, looking inside, it was the events of early August 1987 that came to mind, to that early morning when a teacher sent me and two friends to buy soap in the town with the absurd, early colonial name, Camp Swahili. And there, as we ask about, comes the single gunshot, the high whine of a military truck racing back to town, and then the preternatural sight of the men, the fighters of the rebel prophetess, Alice Lakwena, shirtless, in their black shorts, their torsos glistening in the sun from shea butter, which we later learned had been smeared to bounce off bullets.

The key event shaping a personal future starts at that moment. Explanations are not needed. You have learned a lesson; when the time has come, you must run, do not hesitate. We are going very fast. We cut through the Madera Seminary, which in ordinary times had been forbidden. We are reaching the school compound when the bombardment begins, and all over the town, when the shock of the explosion draws our attention, we see a pillar of black smoke, as if to announce the beginning of hell, habemus bellum.

We make it to the Stretcher House dormitory and dive under the beds. And there, for the next two hours, we track the movement of the front line by how close the sounds of battle are. We hear it recede from the town, come past the flying school, which is a mile from our complex of missionary schools. (Madera was set up in 1914 by the Mill Hill fathers and came to include a school for the blind, a girls’ school, a boys’ school, a technical college and a seminary.)

Shortly, the front envelopes us. Its progress is majestic, slow, following the sloping ground from Soroti town, going down a slight incline to dip into a swamp. This swamp halts the battle, as the army decides against pursuing the attackers beyond the Arapai ridge.

There is, intermixed with the terror, a character to war you read about but is the privilege of an accursed few who get to know it intimately. It is the macabre nature of war that men find irresistible, the grisly truth that a war in motion can also be attractive.

Yes, the sounds of war can be a terrifying, seductive symphony. The sharp mosquito-like buzzing sound of a bullet flying mere feet from your ears, the tearing, rocketing then shuttering register of mortar shells, the ear-splitting rending, as if a giant were holding a sheet of metal as one holds a piece of paper then rips it to pieces as missiles tear overhead. The inscrutable lopping repetitiveness of a machine gun that sounds like someone drumming on a home-made drum fashioned from an old aluminium saucepan. But everyone looks forward to the artillery, the big boy stuff, with dread fascination; the imperious rapid impatience of Katyusha rockets which come as if the earth were being cut up by a high-velocity grinder tool, and, target found, the centre of the world collapses.

In a lockdown, life loses meaning

But as I drew away from the window, my memory drained, I remembered that I had to leave to rejoin the delegation of East African MPs at the Flying School. Then a shot of the feeling I once lived with daily attacked me

How can one explain such a feeling? There’s the febrile malarial listlessness to it, a dry-throated longing, like having a nightmare whilst fully awake. That day in early 2002, I felt as I had for much of 1987 – that there was no point to life, that going on with it would only lead to a future of dystopian mediocrity.

But if the 2002 reunion did not answer the question, then March 2020, when news came of the world locked down in fear, left little doubt. There, across the valley from my apartment in Entebbe, the planes stopped landing and taking off. The grass around the runway was starting to grow wild. Amidst the dead silence all around, I could sense the collective fear of humanity that was awaiting the calamity.

It reminded me of 1987. I heard once more the silence of the skies when the flying school Piper and Cessna planes stopped flying. I saw the spot of greenery on the runway. The school lawns, once meticulous, had become wilderness. And in the night, there were blood-curdling cries that registered in the morning as another funeral in the villages beyond the Catholic missionary complex of Madera.

This was the second time in my life that I was going into a lockdown. The first one lasted nearly a year and it was devastating. It was only in March 2020, 33 years later, that I began to learn that a certain part of me never made it past August 1987.

My mind went back to that day when I saw the fighters of the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena. It was the first time I saw them; I never saw them again; I have never managed to unsee them since.

By August of 1987, northern Uganda had already been in a lockdown for many months. The savage war in Luwero, southern Uganda, had migrated to the north. And there, with changed fortunes, yesterday’s rebels becoming government and yesterday’s government forces the new rebels, the texture of the violence acquired a new complexion. And yet 1987 was early days in what would be a savage two-decade-long war that has not yet ended. But how could an 11-year-old boy whose chief interest in life was to see mummy know that?

The manner of the war meant we were liable to get trapped easily. Hitherto, northern Uganda had had a string of nationally enviable schools. The shutdown of the schools began in Gulu, and made its way east, as did the fighting. The result was that we who came from Lango and Acholi were at the initial stages, in the safety of Teso, by which calculation our parents thought it best we stay there. But no one had anticipated the rapidity with which the war would move. Within weeks, in late July 1987, the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena had crossed over to Teso. That morning, we saw the rebels running down from the Arapai Railway station to Soroti town, where they aimed to take over the airfield of the flying school.

The lagging progression of the war had allowed parents from the east and south to pick their children via the road to Mbale in the east. We would have needed the road to the west, which was shut off. Hence, the first term break had come and we had stayed in school. The second term had started and it was thought best we simply continue with our studies.

But there was to be no second term. Barely had it begun than the parents returned, this time with the vigilance of birds not taking a chance with their nest again. Then the road to the east was cut. We were doomed.

We, the seven students who had spent the last six months at the school, felt the loneliness instantly. In a lockdown, the early days are the most lonely. You feel the prickliness of abandonment. After the warm companionship of crowds is gone, you become aware of your status. There is a grim numbness from which you emerge drained of everything, even fear.

Your concern is for it to end, for you to get your old life back. But that life is gone. Sterner times await you. You learn new ways, new languages, believe in new gods and causes. It is likely that you or the people you love or know will die. You will learn fear.

When the school was empty, we, the stranded, knew we were preparing for something darker. The first month was the worst; we had hope. We spent hours watching the drive into the school, hoping to catch the familiar frame of a parent, the sound of the diesel 504 Peugeot from Aboke that would collect us.

One teacher, Miss Ekit, kept watch over us, like an aunt, but she had nothing to feed her relatives taking refuge in her house, let alone us.

For the next four months, the 400 by 300 metres of Madera Boys marked the confines of our world. We dared not, and were warned against, going into Soroti town. There was a railway station over the ridge of Arapai. There was no train. There was a flying school close by. Only the most connected parents airlifted their children away.

To stay locked down, to know that darkness is enveloping the world around you, is a terrifying reality whose greatest damage is not what happens or what does not happen to you in the months you spend alone. You go into isolation expecting the big moments, the war, the calamity, to come confronting you personally. More often than not, the extremes do not happen. But that is also a revelation; because the big things have not come to you, you grow to learn that you are but one insignificant soul. When the extremes do come to you, as they do to a few unfortunate ones, then that too is another revelation; you were but a mere speck of dirt in the great maw of history. You are personally ground into the dirt but war, or peace, plough on regardless.

A Do Me Good hangs us out like tethered goats

As the shutting down of the north began, hidden impulses and prejudices started to surface. The deputy head teacher of Madera Boys, a prickly little man we called A Do Me Good (which was what he called the cane he never walked without) separated all the Luo speakers from the rest. Our beddings and suitcases were taken out of the dormitory. We stayed under the trees during the day and slept in the classrooms at night. We were the dangerous breed. The Nilotics had been overthrown by their arch enemies. Now a punitive raid by the southerners in power against the Nilotes was feared. And in Teso, it was thought, associating with Luo speakers would draw the ire of the new rulers.

In the initial stages of the war, this fear was an extreme event. An attack did come, but it was from further north, and they came, not for us, but for the cattle of the Teso. The Karamojong cattle raids intensified, and we watched as Teso, once a rich, well-fed and proud region, lost its collective wealth.

Before we had even left, skin diseases of indescribable virulence had spread throughout the land. That had been during that ill-fated second term when we had remained uncollected in the school. And although the Ministry of Education had been informed of A Do Me Good’s doing, and we had been reinstated in the dormitories, what was coming for the north was bigger than the calculations of an obscure deputy headmaster in an obscure school.

Everyone one else left and so there were hundreds of beds left for us. As my childhood friend John liked to joke, there was now a bed for each of his fingers, toes, ears and teeth.

But something else stuck. To be foreign in a time of strife is to attract fear and suspicion. In our case, we had spoken the same language as the last regime’s, and the fear of association – for the Teso were as Nilotic as we were – stayed throughout the time we lived alone in the school.

The second month arrived. The delivery of maize meal and beans from the Ministry of Education ceased. The school store was broken into and the last morsels of food were taken. First we ran to the teachers. We returned with sticks of cassava. Some called us “Elangoit” (Teso for Lango) to our faces and chased us away. For me personally, it was a frightening time. (My name, Kaiza, is from my great grandfather three generations past who was Bunyoro, a culture and language my own grandfather barely remembered, but it meant I would be regarded as enemy by all sides). It did not take long for us to realise that it had been the same ministry delivery that had kept them fed.

There unwalked paths to the roads disappeared and the lawns had a return-to-the wild look. Unswept, the leaves played in the wind. There was a high season of large, egg-yolk orange sunsets. The dusks descended as harbingers of doom. We feared the nights for the dreams that awaited darkness. We feared the nights because children fear darkness. There was a cemetery close by and in the evenings, we thought we caught willow-the-wisps skirting the perimeters. (As I write this from Entebbe, power is gone, dogs are barking wildly and two days ago, a neighbour who returned from Europe with all his family, workers and dogs, was taken into quarantine.)

In the desultory daytime air, we kept to the shade. Towards the end (which you never see coming), we switched from fearing the nights to fearing the daylight. We started to long for the night. We knew the school very well and could stow away in safer corners at night, even inside the heavy branches of the mango trees, till morning.

In a last twist of the knife, one day, Okello, my second cousin, came running to Teacher Ekit’s house where we had taken water, and informed us that a military truck had come and taken two of the boys, the Ejuras, away. They were flown home in a helicopter. We came from the same town. Their father knew people. They left us behind. Now there were just five of us left – me, John, Okello, the portly Akona, and Ocen, a quiet little boy I never heard from since.

The going of the Ejura boys marked a turn for the worse. Corrosive silence took over. We played football less. Looking back, this was preparation for the next phase, and when it came, our own childhood deserted us. We aged prematurely.

Learning to live without food 

Starvation is an event of immense clarifying power. It seems there are two types of human beings: those who have never faced starvation and so do not know many things; and those who have faced starvation and can see through the veneer of most things.

Whilst we had had the supply of maize and beans, we led sad lives, longing for home and fearing for our safety.

But when one day, Okwana, the school cook, did not show up, something switched. Three days went by with barely anything to eat. There was the shame we individually shared, when one by one, we disappeared – to forage in dumps, to gouge the backs of kitchens.

The suggestion might have come from John. He was the strongest-willed of our lot. His father was the doctor of Aboke, an imperious old man. John had the family haughtiness in him. It had come as a chance discovery one morning when while collecting fruits from the borassus palm trees fringing the school, I stumbled upon a root. John came to pull me up. But I had heard a snap in the soil. I went down and dug hands in. I came out with a large tube of cassava. Disbelief. Joy. The surreal moment.

But we had become wise to something by then. John bade me be quiet. We poked around and discovered that this garden, belonging to one of the teachers that had fled the war, had been badly harvested. We took what tubers we thought we could conceal. We ate some raw, but decided that it was best we steal over to the Madera Technical College, over the fence, to cook it, to avoid attracting attention.

Along with some sweet potatoes we dug out of poorly harvested fields, we settled upon cooking in the soil. We dug up the ground, and lighting switches, waited for the bigger sticks to catch fire. We collected rocks and placed these in the fire, and placing the cassava and potatoes in with the rocks, we covered the lot and left. We returned and dug out baked cassava and potatoes.

We fed off the gardens around the school for about a month when the tubers stopped coming out. We collected tins, including paint tins, to cook with. But by then we had discovered the “carelessness” of the Teso farmer. That was our actual word. We set out to “correct them”. Hence the word “correction” was what we called our forage.

The word would have been from Okello, my second cousin. Okello was the genius. His marks for all four primary school subjects lingered in the 80s range.

The story from there took on its own character. It was what we became. The fear we had had of ranging out the school perimeter vanished. Hunger gave us courage we were unprepared for. We made our way past the school for the blind, correcting, gathering. We found groundnuts. We found patches of vegetables we recognised. We gathered tamarind fruits. We walked boldly past military roadblocks.

The groundnuts were a boon. We gathered skills we did not know we had. To turn the nuts into butter, we roasted the seeds in hot soil, taking the moisture out. We pounded the lot and ground them. With the vegetables we had sun-dried, the groundnut butter made for a delectable sauce, a far cry from the cassava.

We went past the flying school, going south of the prisons farm.

This manner of feeding became routine. And we used the correction walks to beg for salt from families we knew in Soroti town. The shutting down of the region was having a terrible effect as essentials and incomes ran out. By comparison, we in the school had space, the “correction” to live by.

But the town had its complexities, of course. There were the Asian families in Soroti town who never seemed to run out of things, whose shops remained well-stocked. There were the high civil servants in the senior quarters. There were the bars and restaurants that lined Jumbhai Road that our steps slowed down going past. The piles of chapati, samosas and roast chicken were set there as if to remind us of our status.

And so the discovery of a further truth in the life of decline.

In town, we got looks. We were shouted away from certain places.

It was John who understood this instantly. The state of us had deteriorated. We had no soap. We were malnourished, unwashed, and walking in town. We were a threat. Who knows, a piece of soap, a soda, precious things, might be snatched.

It was a long walk back to Madera. The looks we got began to register. Our hands were covered in scurvy. We had seen town children our own age playing with samosas and chapati and ice cream.

It was not the war that was damaging; it was what the war turned you into that did the harm.

Ice cream had become too good for us.

Till today, I do not understand by what miracle none of us came down with malaria or typhoid. In the state we were in, it would have taken but a little nudge for the ultimate to come.

By late 1987, banditry had taken hold. Internecine conflict had broken out between the Teso that supported the new Museveni regime and those that did not. Class differences turned Teso against Teso. We watched as even some of our own teachers put on military uniforms and joined either the rebels or the new regime and an intra-ethnic war raged. Each morning brought news of someone who had disappeared the night before.

There was a teacher, Mr Odongo, who had kept a distant, avuncular eye on us. He never approached us but hung about where we understood he was overseeing us. One evening, there was a gunshot, so close that the shock of its explosion silenced our little group. Later in the night, we heard a knock on the classroom door. Mr. Odongo may have studied our peregrinations and knew we no longer slept in the dorms. When we opened the door, there he stood, cradling his arm. He had been shot.

We did not know that the bullet had to be taken out. We did not know why he was running a temperature. But John, from watching his father, understood a few things. It was he who ran out for help. Mr. Odongo was taken by adults to hospital and we never heard of him again.

Another teacher, whose brother had joined the government militia, was not so lucky. The bullet got him square in the chest.

A bridge, a land mine

We became inured to life, which is a dangerous stage. One day, a skirmish broke out in Arapai but we just sat by the window, watching, wondering if they were killing many, in between talking about what they were eating back home.

Another afternoon, over at the girls’ school, where my sister was, but which was better provisioned because the nuns ran a tight ship, we heard screaming. In no time, we heard the gunshots and saw scores of men running with the mattresses they had stolen from the girls.

Shortly, we watched as, first, a helicopter sounded off overhead. Then, there was the piercing roar of what may have been a Mig15 fighter jet. John and I were sitting under the tall jacaranda trees by the football field. The Mig heeled up, then, in a terrifying moment, it pitched down, splitting the air, screaming and then it dipped below the tree line. Then it was coming up.

The explosion tore the air apart. We did not run. We had been told to stay put if soldiers or planes appeared. The fighter jet tumbled overhead, we saw it turn upside down, the head of the pilot showing.

In the commotion of jet roar, we had not noticed them. But a single shout drew our attention swiftly. The army had amassed by the football field. And in a straight line, shoulder to shoulder rather than single file, they started to march, sweeping into the bush.

We heard our names. It was Miss Ekit. We got up and ran to the dormitory. She pulled us in and shut the door. We all went under the beds.

There was something about that second battle, coming sometime in November, that was different. It did not sound as dramatic. In fact, it was dull. And it cleared off into the distance. But after that, masses of people disgorged from the countryside and Soroti town became a refugee camp. A Do Me Good disappeared.

We discovered that there had been far more people in the vicinity of Madera than we had known. All had been in hiding, but were now outed by a turn in the war that we did not understand.

People were listless. A faraway look diverted their attention from the immediate. A look like hunger, but deeper, more spiritual. Mute, dull, zombies. We had stopped noticing ourselves, but there we were. Our clothes were too big for us. We had taken to stripping bark off trees to tie our shorts in place. Our shirts were in tatters.

The next week, Miss Ekit told us to pack. She had heard me narrate my stories of travel, for before 1985, my father took me around the country on his business trips. I understood a bit about Kampala, as I knew Mbale very well. Ekit asked me about a friend of our family who was a high-level civil servant in Mbale. She had me repeat his name and the street on which he lived. I did not understand why.

The next day, a long truck drew up outside the technical school. Again, the amazement came. There were scores of schoolchildren hidden in many places whom we did not know about. We were packed into the truck. It drove out of Soroti. We did not speak. If we crossed Bukedea, the border between Teso and Bugisu, we would be safe.

But there was one last throw of fate before we left. We had not yet crossed Aoja Bridge when an explosion whipped our heads to the back. A van had driven over a land mine and lay on the roadside, burning.

The truck had missed it. We the Aboke group were left in Mbale. I took the group to the home of my father’s friend. My father came shortly afterwards and took us all back to the north, via Kampala. But not to our town. In my absence, my family had fled to a place near the Nile, where we still live.

In the coming months, Teso turned into hell, culminating in the notorious Mukura massacre, some of whose perpetrators were the first to die in the Rwanda war five years later.

I did not see John, Akona or Okello again till the late 1990s, and have not seen them since.

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Reflections

Education in a Time of Coronavirus: How e-Learning is Impacting Poor Rural Students

Unable to exploit the internet like their more fortunate peers, poor students in Kenya’s rural areas are losing more of what little chance they have to succeed in an education system that already does not favour them.

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Education in a Time of Coronavirus: How e-Learning is Impacting Poor Rural Students
Photo: Unsplash/Roman Mager
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“[T]he Government of the Republic of Kenya at this time (. . .) is not going to consider stopping e-learning. Well, I keep saying that (. . .) all our children are equal. Those who can access content, they will get access of the content (. . .) I think it is better to allow the ones to get, and hope that the period is as short as possible, and when the time comes we shall empower the others.” – Education C.S. George Magoha

Solomon sent me a message to say that he wouldn’t be coming in the following day; he wanted to finish some tests he had started the night before on Tusome and send them in for marking. Solomon is a student in a boys’ boarding school in chilly Kinangop, high up in the Aberdares, but he’s been back home since the coronavirus came to play havoc with the school calendar.

The message was sent from a cheap smartphone with a cracked screen. Solomon didn’t always have a phone; I used to have to call his granny, an irascible old woman with a harsh tone of voice and an abrupt telephone manner, if I needed to talk to him. “Uga!” (Say!), she would bark, leaving me momentarily confused about why I had called.

Left to fend for three orphaned grandchildren at an old age and with no income other than the money she could make as a casual labourer, Cũcũ wa Solomon had no choice but to send the children out to look for work during the school holidays, and that is how I first met Solomon, a pimply lad in an oversized hoodie and a tattered pair of sneakers. Since then Solomon has come to me during the school holidays, helping with the weeding and trimming the hedge, making a man’s daily wage to supplement the family’s income, and recently buying himself a second-hand cell phone.

Solomon is in Form Four now and will sit for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education this year; he tells me that he has received a message from his school confirming that the exams will start on the 4th of November. He has his smartphone and the wages with which to buy himself internet bundles, but without the textbooks and his teachers’ help, I do not know what Solomon’s chances are.

Mose’s situation is quite different. His mum has a kabambe of a phone, with a long-lasting battery and a bright torch that takes over when the electricity tokens run out in the two-room rented home she shares with her two boys. It is not of much use to Mose, who is in his last year at our local primary school, and who would need a smartphone to register on the Tusome platform in order to access revision notes and mock tests.

The closure of all schools was announced very abruptly on a Sunday by the government, leaving the teaching staff at our local primary school with very little time to prepare homework for the pupils while they waited for schools to reopen. And so, the head teacher, a deeply committed educationist who accomplishes very much with very little, has resorted to sending links to downloadable learning materials to the parents of Class Eight pupils even while acknowledging that, for a great many, access is impossible. Registration on the Tusome platform is free but it still costs 50 shillings a day to use, 300 shillings a week and 1,000 shillings monthly (contrary to the misleading information on the site).

Wa Mose works as a casual labourer on the surrounding farms and on building sites, earning 250 shillings from eight in the morning to one in the afternoon. She’s an industrious woman; she knits school jumpers to order in the evenings and does other people’s laundry in the afternoons. Still, her earnings have not stretched to the acquisition of a smartphone and now she is fretting over Mose’s prospects come the exams.

But even if Wa Mose did own a smartphone, her son would have to spend hours squinting at the small screen, scrolling through all the 141 pages of mathematics before taking the online tests and moving on to the next subject. The pages are not printable, and even if they were, they would cost 1,410 shillings to print. Wa Mose would have to find money for that one subject alone (and there are five in total), not to mention the cost of the internet bundles it would take.

One might be led to believe that the Tusome platform is an initiative of the Ministry of Education since it borrows its name from a programme run by the ministry, but it is in reality a private money-making initiative that is merely providing access to PDFs of scanned copies of existing learning materials.

Over at Teachers Arena, a website that started out as a WhatsApp group where teachers shared resources and information, there is no need for registration; access to the content is free and the material is downloadable and printable. However, the mathematics section alone runs to 54 pages. At our local cybercafé, Wa Nancy charges 10 shillings per printed page, so it would cost 2,700 shillings—at the very least— to print the revision notes and mock tests for all the subjects.

To avoid leaving her children at home unsupervised and getting up to no good, Wa Mose has sent the boys to their grandmother where, fortunately, there is a radio on which they can listen to the educational programmes that are broadcast by the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development.

However, even this choice is not open to all. When I asked Kahiga’s mother if at least the family had a radio, her answer was simple and stark: “We have nothing.”

Wa Kahiga lives with her children in a rented room on the edge of our township, selling her labour to others for 50 shillings an hour. Work is not always easy to find and hunger is familiar in her home. And although quiet and soft-spoken, she is forthright and brutally honest if the choice is between the PTA contribution and keeping the family fed. Nevertheless, the head teacher keeps Kahiga in school and waits patiently for the money to be found. Now Kahiga is at home, waiting, and lacking the means to improve his chances of escaping the grinding poverty that is his lot.

Mose’s head teacher is not sure how the school will make up for the lost time. Although the majority of the school’s pupils are day scholars, the school does offer boarding facilities for pupils coming from further afield, as well as those from our locality whose parents wish them to board. He had contemplated proposing that all the 176 KCPE candidates become boarders for the rest of the year once schools reopen in June (if they do), with the staff teaching from early in the morning till late in the evening after supper, as well as on Saturdays, so that the syllabus can be covered before the exams. But space in the dormitories is limited and squeezing in more beds would compromise the social distancing necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And so the head teacher has had to give up that idea; as it is, he is not even sure how the school will practise social distancing in the classrooms.

Still, it is unlikely that many parents of day scholars would have taken the head teacher up on that suggestion, even were it workable. The extra money to cover the boarding fees and the necessary supplies would have to be found, yet many of the parents have not paid last term’s boarding fees in full, which has in turn had a knock-on effect on salaries. The school relies on the fees to pay the ten support staff who include the workers employed to cook and clean after the pupils and the groundsman who also doubles up as the school’s baker. The head teacher has had to call upon the goodwill of the school’s banker to pay their April salaries but he has forewarned them that May salaries may not be paid on time.

The rains have been abundant, though, and there is plenty of work available weeding on the farms around us. All hands are on deck now, with parents and their children going out to sell their labour and earn as much as they can before the rainy season ends, so the wherewithal to settle last term’s balances and cover next term’s costs might yet be found.

Even though mobile telephones have become ubiquitous in much of the country, the digital divide remains firmly in place, a vast chasm that keeps children from rural areas and disadvantaged backgrounds separate, unable to exploit the internet like their more fortunate peers, and, in this time of coronavirus, losing more of what little chance they have to succeed in an education system that, from every fathomable point of view, does not favour them.

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